JITE v39n1 - An Emerging Perspective on Policies for American Work and Education in the Year 2000: Choices We Face (1994)

Volume 39, Number 1
Fall 2001

An Emerging Perspective on Policies for American Work and Education in the Year 2000: Choices We Face

Arthur G. Wirth
Washington University

The generalization that provides the background for the remarks to follow is that we are living in the beginning stages of one of the great social transformations in human history-a computer-driven, post-industrial revolution that is replacing the factory industrialism that opened the century.

A hundred years ago, the decade of the 1890s was another great watershed decade. Frederick Jackson Turner called it the decade of the closing of the frontier. We were leaving the stage of pioneering exploration and agricultural expansion to enter a new urban industrial America. The assembly line was the new dominant tool of production; it replaced farm- and craft-centered hand skills, and its influence permeated the society, including the schools.

We excelled in it and by mid-century dominated the world's economy, but by the 1990s it appears to have run its course. Its features, once so powerful, can become dysfunctional for meeting the new realities.

The new realities of post-industrialism are (a) the electronics communications revolution; (b) the emergence of a competitive global market; (c) serious ecological damage; (d) ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity; and, above all, (e) turbulent change, rapid and unpredictable.

We are struggling to adapt. Some are making it and some are not. In the past fifteen years we have been confronting a disturbing new phenomenon-an overall decline in the American standard of living.

In the 1980s, American productivity rose by 1%, Japanese productivity by 3%. As we saw the hollowing-out of well-paying manufacturing jobs, 70% of new jobs were lower skill/lower-pay jobs. We have moved toward a more polarized society. The well-educated top 25% prospered, but the median wage fell by 5%. Real wages in 1992 for male high school graduates with up to five years of work experience were 27% below 1979 levels ( Faux, 1993 ). In 1991, 21.8% of American children (one-third of families with children) were living in poverty ( Bernstein, 1993 ). In the 1980s, 50% of additional income went to the top one percent; the middle class shrank by 4.5% ( Harrison & Bluestone, 1988 ). Another fact of major importance is that in the early 1990s, the labor pool in third world countries increased by 554 million, versus 3.5 million in mature industrial countries. We face a third world awash with hundreds of millions ready to work for much lower wages than American workers and new high-tech competitors from Europe and the Asian rim.

Before considering proposals for meeting the challenge, a few words about the social transformation that is needed. With the advent of assembly-line production at the opening of the century, the basic problem was how to harness an ill-educated immigrant labor force with power-driven factory machinery. Frederick W. Taylor's scientific management offered the solution: break production into easily learned, repetitive tasks; design work as a dual system with thinking, supervision, and control limited to qualified technicians and managers at the top; expect compliant, unthinking execution by workers on the line. It was the system with which we entered the 1980s, at a time when suspicion was growing that it lacked the flexibility and intelligence to cope with turbulent change.

In 1980, William Duffy, vice-president of General Motors in charge of new plant construction, told us at a Washington University luncheon,

General Motors used to boast that its production line had been broken into job segments so simple that any task on the line could be learned in fifteen minutes or less-any idiot could do it. If workmanship and morale were poor, the answer was to step up supervision and control. But by l980, GM was beginning to fear that a production process based on increased control by supervisors of a reluctant, unmotivated, antagonistic workforce that produced shabby products was not viable for survival.

By 1980, GM and other companies were looking for an alternative to Taylorism. In the late 1970s, they were turning to an alternative theory of work, developed in Scandinavia, called democratic socio-technical work theory . Scandinavians saw Taylorism as fundamentally flawed. Human work, in post-industrialism, they said, is socio-technical. The technical side of the hyphen refers to the power of electronic technology. But the socio refers to the important human qualities needed to troubleshoot, communicate, innovate, and collaborate to meet change ( Wirth, 1983 ).

Taylorism, they said, is guilty of the "technical fix fallacy:" the assumption that all problems will yield to expert-designed technical solutions. It ignores the "socio" (human) dimension, critical for high-tech work. We may note that while workplace democracy contributes to human dignity at work, the Scandinavians made it clear that ensuring the democratic dimension of socio-technical work requires strong involvement by democratic unions. Echoing this sentiment, Owen Bieber, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), called in 1990 for an end to management's "charmed circle of privilege," saying that industry's survival depends on workers' involvement in deciding investments, products, prices, working conditions, and decisions to send work overseas ( Wirth, 1983, p. 39 ). In emerging high-tech work, any organization that fails to tap the brains and commitment of people at work will fail.

By the beginning of the 1990s, American theorists were making their own analyses of what was happening and their recommendations for change. I'll refer to four of them that I will call our Informing Gurus. They all see classical Taylorism as dysfunctional and are proposing alternatives.

The first guru is Robert Reich (1991), author of The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism and currently President Clinton's secretary of labor. His central argument is that the standardized mass production of the Taylorized assembly line era is obsolete. Our former near monopoly of the American market is gone, as that market is now just another part of the one competitive global market, with everyone in it.

In the 1970s, while American producers were venturing forth with the bright idea of planned obsolescence, new international rivals were doing end runs around them with ideas like "the perfect car," and consumers loved it. The consumers are global; they have diverse, changing needs; and they have plenty of producers beckoning for their attention.

The result, says Reich, is that American corporations that can no longer generate large earnings from the high-volume production of standard commodities are gradually turning toward serving the diverse special needs of customers dispersed around the globe. They are surviving by shifting from high-volume to high-quality production. National corporations are being transformed into international corporations with offices and personnel located all over the world.

Global communication networks of computers, fax machines, satellites, and modems link engineers, designers, contractors, and dealers worldwide. This global system, which is in a constant state of change and refinement, is made possible not only by evolving technology but also by four key human skills that drive high-value enterprises. Reich ( 1991 ) says that these are the skills of symbolic analysis:

  • Abstraction - the capacity to order and make meaning of the massive flow of information, to shape raw data into workable patterns.
  • System thinking - the capacity to see the parts in relation to the whole, to see why problems arise.
  • Experimental inquiry - the capacity to set up procedures to test and evaluate alternative ideas.
  • Collaboration - the capacity to engage in active dialogue to get a variety of perspectives and to create consensus when that is necessary.

The result, says Reich, is a growing trend: those with the symbolic analytic skills (the top 25%) prosper, those with routine skills are slipping, and those with low skills and dropouts are obsolete, with poverty as their life prospect.

A second guru is Harvard's Shoshana Zuboff, author of In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power , who studied companies on the frontier of high technology ( Zuboff, 1988 ). She found managers in these places facing an interesting choice. The first, which she termed the automating choice, assumes that you can succeed competitively primarily with new technology, retain top down controls, and deskill labor. You can go overseas with this model or cheapen labor at home. It is a powerful temptation. The flaw, Zuboff says, is that over the long haul, it tends to lack the flexibility required to remain competitive under turbulent change.

The second possibility Zuboff calls the informating option. It grows out of the recognition that the centrally controlled automated choice is not flexible enough to cope with the new order of change and complexity. In the informating choice, computer technology becomes a source for designing innovative methods of sharing information with the workforce-informating them. New types of skill and knowledge that depend on the understanding and manipulation of information are needed to tap the potential of an intelligent technology. As the work force is given access to data from an information rich environment, hierarchical distinctions begin to blur. Managers and workers fashion new roles that permit them to invent creative ways to add value to products and services.

Zuboff gives detailed examples of how work in the age of the smart machine gets transformed by the emergence of an "electronic text." The change is from the manual skills of physical production to work marked by abstract intellectual skills. This requires a kind of learning that demands the constructing of meaning from a symbolic medium.

Learning becomes a top priority. Managers begin to see that all workers in the system need access to data so that they can understand the system in order to troubleshoot and innovate. Beyond the need for access to data, the organizational climate must support the essential conditions of a learning environment: freedom to play with ideas, to experiment, and to enter into dialogue. Such a democratic environment enhances competitive effectiveness, but at a cost that can be threatening to management. Thus the dilemma of management: choose the automating option, which preserves control from the top level at the cost of the flexibility required to be globally competitive, or choose to informate, which shifts power to people in more democratic work settings. A competitive edge is gained, but at the cost of losing the traditional command prerogatives of management.

A third guru is Edward Deming ( Gabor, 1990 ), with his concept of Total Quality Management (TQM). He argues that the only way to survive in a world awash with cheap labor and high-tech competitors is to be superior in quality and innovation-to keep a step ahead of the pack. The key ingredient is a highly educated, competent workforce with an individual and group commitment to a relentless pursuit of quality.

The key to quality, he says, is trust between management and the work force. Trust is undermined by the mainline Management by Objectives tradition, which uses the motivation of fear to pit people against each other. The fixation on merit ratings, Deming says, diverts leadership from its central task, which is to create trust, competence, commitment to quality, and even joy in work. Deming does advocate teaching workers competence with quantitative methods only so that workers themselves can get feedback on their performance and do their own quality control, for which they take responsibility. At Xerox and Ford, performance appraisal ratings are based primarily on the performance of the team and include contributions to cooperative efforts.

Another point often overlooked is Deming's contention that a spiritual issue is involved. We ought to be informed, he says, by the passage in Ecclesiastes that says that we were created "a little higher than the animals" and "a little lower than the angels."

Organizations that treat us as mere organisms miss our distinctive human strengths-our capacities for analyzing, problem solving, and innovating. But we also are "lower than the angels." So harm can occur with the wrong kind of freedom; freedom needs to be balanced by self-discipline and responsibility for high-quality work. There is a never-ending search in good human organizations to find the right balance.

The fourth guru is the National Center on Education and the Economy, together with people loosely associated with the Clinton administration. The Southern Regional Education Board is one of the educational groups putting the ideas into practice. From the National Center came the volume America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages ( National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990 ). The thesis is that our basic choice is either to drift toward a polarized, low-skill/low-wage society or to follow Germany and Japan in creating a high-skill/high-wage society based on two key features: (a) have all front-line American workers educated at middle-level academic, communications, technical, and managerial skills so that they can handle emerging technology, implement quality controls, be involved in self-management groups, and be prepared for continuing learning at new levels and (b) have industrial leaders committed to a collaborative, participatory management style that taps the strengths of such a work force. Such a work force will have to come from the non-college-bound sector of American students, the group that schools are doing their least effective job with.

Proposals for a major overhaul are based on several assumptions: (a) that a high school diploma will be less and less viable for entry into the work world of the year 2000; (b) that President Bush's Project 2000 pointed correctly to one key problem-the need to raise academic achievement-but failed to recognize that different pedagogical strategies are required to motivate unengaged students; and (c) that a whole new attitude needs to be taken toward non-college bound students. So, instead of "dumbing down" instruction for students in the general track, follow the lead of Henry Levin in his Accelerated Schools Program for at-risk students-give them the kind of enriched programs that are provided for the gifted, including experiential, hands-on, active learning ( Wirth, 1992, pp. 111-116 ).

With these assumptions in mind, the National Center is proposing three bold steps: (a) restructure the three-track school system that reflected Taylorist-era realities, (b) employ new pedagogical theory and strategies, and (c) create new forms of assessment.

The ideas for restructuring the system and employing different pedagogical strategies are interrelated. The argument is that cognitive psychology tells us that learning tends to be most effective when tied to real-world experience-when more of our human capacities are engaged like our manipulative capacities, opportunities for social interaction, the chance to puzzle things out, to generate hypotheses and act on them.

Where structure is concerned, the proposal is to eliminate the functioning three-track system created in the era of Taylorism and replace it with a Tech-Prep program. All academic courses will be given at the college-prep level. Non-college-bound students (some say all students) will have academics complemented by various forms of applied/experiential learning. The Tech-Prep program, eventually replacing the high school diploma, would involve new linkages between secondary schools and junior colleges, so that the goal would be to have all students completing something like the first year of junior college before entering work.

Changes in pedagogical theory and practice are just as important as curriculum restructuring. Factory-era schools were based on a knowledge accumulation concept of learning rooted in the Thorndikean behaviorist tradition. The strategy of mastery of basal texts plus testing fails to produce the quality of learning needed for postindustrial reality. That style has been a demonstrable failure with too many students. The need is for more experimentation with active styles of learning based on cognitive psychology; for example, constructivist learning that has students construct understanding in group problem-solving projects.

No single formula is proposed, but a variety of ideas are in the hopper. Robert T. Reich is pushing hard with the Schools-to-Work Opportunity bill for the expansion of apprenticeship programs and employer internships, where academic study is integrated with work world experiences. Others, like Thomas Bailey and Sue Berryman, are recommending cognitive apprenticeships, where apprentice-type methods are applied to academic learning ( Berryman & Bailey, 1992 ). I gave other examples in Education and Work for the Year 2000 , such as the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) program where students and teachers invent ways of using computer technology to advance their learning ( Wirth, 1992 ).

A third proposal is to replace standardized testing assessment with a system of performance standards that students could explicitly prepare for. (Final assessments would be based on portfolios, performance tests, exhibitions, etc.) The goal is to create certification programs beginning in Tech-Prep and continuing throughout work careers that would improve lifetime employment opportunities for all, thereby avoiding a society of "education haves" versus "have nots." To give dropouts a second chance, states could establish local youth centers through employment training boards with a family like atmosphere, counseling, basic education, and a strong mentoring program.

Finally, incentives would be offered to employers to invest 1% of payroll in programs of further education and training as a permanent part of the American work world. The aim is to build a new philosophy where skill upgrading for a majority of workers throughout their work lives becomes a central aim of policy.

Technical Education as General Education for All Students?

A possibility that jumps out of all of this is that by 2000 we may be moving toward the idea of making some form of technical education a part of general education for all American students.

I am not sure of just what issues that possibility would pose for vocational/technical educators. I do, however, want to call attention to one critical issue that may get overlooked. The pressures will be strong to focus sharply on how to upgrade skills for a high-skill work force-a worthy and necessary goal. The question is whether such a sharp focus on utilitarian goals could lead us to miss a deeper educational opportunity, one more important for our postindustrial needs perhaps than skill upgrading itself.

We may see the underlying issue by noting John Dewey's way of grappling with the same question as we entered this century. A major urban industrial revolution was replacing our rural past. As apprenticeship weakened, there were strong pressures to add a vocational training component to the schools, and also a groping for what kind of learning was needed to help the young make their way into a transformed America.

In the 1890s, Dewey was simultaneously pioneering his instrumentalist philosophy and creating his University of Chicago Laboratory School. A noteworthy feature of his school was his decision to make the study of occupations the integrating center of the curriculum. His argument was that imaginative study of human occupations contained an extra ordinary potential for giving America's children the kind of an illuminating or liberalizing education that they needed to cope with the problems of an era of revolutionary change.

His argument makes sense only by seeing how it was embedded in that instrumental philosophy he was creating, a philosophy informed by the evolutionary perspective. Dewey, born in 1859, the year of Darwin's On the Origin of Species , was part of a generation whose major intellectual challenge was to come to terms with the disturbing evolutionary perspective.

Dewey came to hold that an image of humans as homo faber (humans as tool users) could reveal the unique human strengths that made it possible for us to experience life in an extraordinarily unique way-to experience life with awareness and growing understanding that could increase through time. He saw our human capacity to use objects as tools and our "tool of tools"-language emerging out of the active occupations of daily life-arise out of our being occupied with meeting the needs of survival like food, clothing, and shelter, and from our need to increase our knowledge of what was happening in order to act more effectively-and beyond that simply to meet our deep need to understand. How could this be? We may conjecture about prehistoric beginnings. Someone first saw the possibility of using a rock as a tool to kill a ground squirrel or as a tool to grind with. Names had to be given to these objects transformed into tools, and language was needed to communicate with companions about what had been learned. Language itself was expanded to become a powerful tool of reflective inquiry as we learned to combine the processes of acting with reflecting on the meaning of our actions. The humanly ennobling process was under way to create understanding and meaning of our condition.

In evolutionary perspective, the introduction of each new tool transformed human life. Thus, with the power of domesticated animals harnessed to the wheel, we entered an age of agriculture. With the harnessing of the energy of coal and steam power we moved into the stage of industrialism, and now the power of computer technology hurls us into a new post-industrialism. Each transformation has been marked by wrenching changes in institutions: economic life, government, family, education, religion, and the arts. With each new challenge our tool of tools, language-as the active process of reflective inquiry-itself expanded and grew in power. Dewey held that language in its most advanced form had emerged as the tool of scientific inquiry, the most powerful instrument of human learning to date. It opened new realms of meaning about the world and ourselves and new means to cope with the turbulent change that scientific inquiry itself produced. Dewey's technical definition of education reflected this perspective of transformative learning. Education, he said, is that active "reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning [italics added] of experience, and which increases the ability to direct [italics added] subsequent experience" ( Dewey, 1916, pp. 89-90 ).

Dewey explored the meaning of this perspective for the schools of the 1890s. As he saw it, by the twentieth century the long struggle of inquiry had produced the impressive bodies of organized knowledge stored in books and libraries-the glorious understandings that had emerged from the inquiries. From these sources, extrapolations had been made into the basal texts of our children.

By 1900, rows of classrooms were being built into massive school buildings where children sat quietly to have the accumulated knowledge transmitted to them. This was a well-intentioned and notable accomplishment, but by Dewey's instrumentalist concept of learning, it contained a fundamental flaw. Knowledge, the end product of the long struggle of inquiry, was being transmitted, but the transmission was divorced from the active process of reflective inquiry that had produced it.

For Dewey, this was untenable because the inquiry process itself was the most important tool of learning twentieth century children needed. In effect, he probed his instrumentalist philosophy to see if there could be an alternative to school seat work. His instrumentalist analysis had led him to see that reflective inquiry itself had come out of the daily active occupations of people grappling with the demands of life with the tools at hand. Not so surprising, then, was his hypothesis that to get students engaged in the occupations and all the questions and inquiries they opened up would be a better alternative to seat work.

Thus we find the famous occupation of weaving in the Dewey School-not, he hastened to add, to meet the new demands for vocational training but because he and his teachers could get students involved in the active, problem-solving, reflective inquiry that the occupations opened up and because they could help students get insight into the revolutionary stage they were living in and understand something of the human history that had got them there.

Thus, he got children actively struggling with the processes of shearing wool, carding it, and spinning it to get it ready for a loom to produce a scarf. Forcing them to face the nitty-gritty of production required them to employ a wide range of learning to complete a difficult task-manipulating tools, reading and researching, interacting socially, communicating, analyzing sources of problems, conjecturing ideas, and actions to resolve them-in short, to be involved in the active process of inquiry. As Jim Garrison ( 1990, p. 405 ) once put it, they learned that "meaning is made originally, by doing, by being occupied with, and operating upon something or other."

But beyond the production process itself students were led to work out historically how the human need to turn raw wool into clothing had been transformed by the introduction of new tools and processes. They could see the changes in human experience that came with changes in technology from primitive handlooms to power-driven or eventually electronically-driven looms of the twentieth century. And they could be led to evaluate the consequences for human life, good or bad. All of this could be accompanied by exploring connections with organized knowledge in academic subject matter.

Thus, Dewey argued that one can "concentrate the history of all mankind into the evolution of flax, cotton and wool fibers into clothing" ( 1916 ). The other technologies of daily life can attain the same potential of liberating learning, with one important proviso. They must be approached with an imaginative commitment to plan learning experiences so that they disclose ever-widening contexts of meaning. Technology, so to speak, can be educative if you dialogue with it. It is more mono-logic if you only train for it.

In the 1990s, there are once again strong pressures to upgrade occupational skills for an increasingly high-tech work force. What I have been trying to suggest, however, is that technical educators informed by John Dewey's instrumentalist philosophy will know that to settle for this focus in a narrow sense will be to miss what Dewey saw as a larger, exciting opportunity: that technical educators, in collaboration with academic colleagues, could take students through in-depth studies of human occupations and their technologies in ways that would provide deeply illuminating, liberalizing educational experiences-in other words, the kind of education needed to help students confront the radically new, uncharted challenges of the twenty-first century.

This may seem far-fetched. It just might gain support, however, as we get serious about the mind-boggling postindustrial realities we are moving into and the understandings we need to cope, among them the following:

  • The need to understand that economic survival requires a global perspective, and a multicultural perspective.
  • The need to understand that postindustrial complexity requires letting go of the demeaning Taylorist dualisms that arrogated to technical elites the authority to think and to manipulate and control people, as well as the need to replace such dysfunctional work styles with alternatives that tap capacities for innovating, reflective learning, and collaborative troubleshooting by all members of the work force, a style that combines democratic values with the power of high technology.
  • The need to understand that a relentless concern for quality of product must be extended to a relentless concern for the quality of the oikos (our house)-the global ecology.
  • The need to understand that a high-tech learning society is ill-served by a dualist separation of vocational training from liberal studies, that the times require liberalizing integrations, of technical and general studies, to provide both the conceptual skills for new work and the skills for making quality-of-life value judgments.
  • The need to understand that with all of the power of technology we can still be torn apart as a society if we fail to address the injustice, despair, and rage spawned by an economically polarized society.

In short, we may be moving into a time when it becomes practical to be moral. I hope so. If we are, we'll have to think to the core what the meaning of that is for the education of our children and for the workers and managers of our workplaces.


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Zuboff , S. (1988). In the age of the smart machine: The future of work and power . New York: Basic Books.

This article first appeared in the Summer, 1994 issue of the Journal (Vol. 31, No. 4).